By Dr. Linda B. White, MD
According to the Centers for Disease Control, influenza viruses continue to wreak misery in 41 states. Got your flu shot? Good, do it again next year.
However, keep in mind that other viruses cause respiratory illness: parainfluenza viruses, adenoviruses, coronaviruses, rhinoviruses….not to mention bacteria such as Streptococcus.
Despite the fact that your world teams with infectious microorganisms, most of the time, you’re reasonably healthy, and your immune system, which defends you from disease-causing microbes. Now, step beyond gratitude to optimize the function of that system.
- Get enough sleep and manage stress. Sleep deprivation and stress overload increase the hormone cortisol, prolonged elevation of which suppresses immune function.
- Avoid tobacco smoke. It undermines basic immune defenses and raises the risk of bronchitis and pneumonia in everyone, and middle ear infections in kids.
- Drink less alcohol. Excessive consumption impairs the immune system and increases vulnerability to lung infections.
- Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, which will provide your body with the nutrients your immune system needs. A study in older adults showed that boosting fruit and vegetable intake improved antibody response to the Pneumovax vaccine, which protects against Streptococcus pneumonia.
- Consider probiotics. Studies indicate supplements reduce the incidence of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Fermented milk products have also been shown to reduce respiratory infections in adults and kids.
- Catch some rays. Sunlight triggers the skin’s production of vitamin D. In the summer, a 10-15 minute exposure (minus sunscreen) is enough. However, above 42 degrees latitude (Boston) from November through February, sunlight is too feeble and few foods contain this vitamin. Low vitamin D levels correlate with a greater risk of respiratory infection. A 2010 study in kids showed that 1200 IU a day of supplemental vitamin D reduced the risk of influenza A. However, a 2012 study that involved supplementing adults with colon cancer with 1000 IU a day failed to demonstrate protection against upper respiratory infections.
- Go for the garlic. Garlic is a broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent and immune booster. Because heat deactivates a key active ingredient, add it to foods just before serving.
- Eat medicinal mushrooms, such as shiitake and maitake (sometimes sold as “hen of the woods”). A recent study showed that a concentrated extract of shiitake enhanced immune function in women with breast cancer.
- Try immune-supportive herbs. If you get recurrent infections, consider taking immune-supportive herbs such as eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticocus), Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), or astragalus (A. membranaceus).
- Make an echinacea tincture. This is good to have on hand when respiratory viruses overwhelm your defenses.
Recipe adapted from 500 TIME-TESTED HOME REMEDIES AND THE SCIENCE BEHIND THEM.
To a pint jar add 1 cup ground root of Echinacea purpurea root, a species shown to enhance immune function and moderately reduce cold symptom severity and duration. Add 1½ cup vodka and stir. If there isn’t 1 to 2 inches of vodka layered above the ground root, add more vodka. Shake daily.
After 4 weeks, strain through cheesecloth into a clean jar.
At the first sniffle, take ½ teaspoon of tincture diluted in water every two hours while awake. After two days, reduce the dosage to ½ teaspoon 3 times a day for the duration of the cold.